Capitalism: A Bummer


A lot of people who are much smarter and better informed than I am have made cogent arguments against the evils of capitalism: it keeps most people in the world in conditions of slavish labor, poverty, and sickness, it’s heedlessly depleting the earth’s resources, ultimately threatening to render the planet uninhabitable. These are all well-documented facts among people who read books, even if they remain blasphemies on TV. May I just raise what I realize is a far more trivial objection? What capitalism does to its victims is obviously monstrous, but I’d like to point out, as a rich privileged straight white guy living in America who owns stocks and hopes never to work an honest day in his life, that what capitalism does to its alleged beneficiariesisn’t all that pretty either. It’s making us all really unhappy. Capitalism is just a big bummer.

Don’t get me wrong me—it’s fun. Capitalism’s a blast. We have more entertainment at our disposal just sitting at home alone than any pharaoh or sultan or kahn who ever had whole orchestras at his command. Just this weekend I saw Mike Daisey’s monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (tickets start at $35, but good luck finding those), ate a Belgian Waffle ($5) with a kind of peanut-buttery spread called Spekuloos (first topping free!) from a waffle truck, drank a few Belgian Ales ($9 each), went to the Jenny Saville show at the Gagosian Gallery (free to look, but those paintings aren’t cheap), ate a $9 pulled-pork sandwich in Central Park, and watched the The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) on Netflix streaming video (I’m on the $15.98 per month plan) on my MacBook (just under $1,000). Capitalism enables you have a really great day. But somehow a succession of great days doesn’t amount to a good life.

Happy people don’t actually need to have so much fun. Despite all this hi-def THX 3D diversion and fusion artisanal gourmet fare, a significant percentage of our population apparently needs to be on psychotropic medication (both prescription and illicit) just to make it through the days. Also, our kids keep starving and cutting themselves, overdosing on drugs, and committing suicide. Doesn’t this all seem like kind of a mass, tacit vote of no confidence in the status quo?

I believe Communism would’ve failed even if it hadn’t been implemented by opportunistic lunatics and thugs, because it demanded that people behave as though they were much better than they are. Myrmecologist Edward O. Wilson famously said, “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species.” People want to look out for themselves and their families, they like to get ahead of their neighbors, and they adore buying crap. But capitalism is similarly fundamentally flawed; it demands that people behave as though they were much worse than they are. We are not purely self-interested creatures, any more than we are purely altruistic. Looking out for nothing but #1, and being ceaselessly pitted against one another, makes us lonely and paranoid. There’s a tumblr site called “53%,” a conservative response to Occupy Wall Street, the gist of which is they don’t want no handouts from Wall Street or the Guv’ment, unlike some spoiled little whiners they could mention. The people who’ve posted their hard-luck/Horatio Alger stories there are the backbone of this country, the kind of self-motivated, hardworking folks who made America the great innovator and economic power of the 20th century, and they also seem like some of the most mean-spirited people on earth—and I’m using “mean” in the sense of small-minded and stingy as well as cruel. Socrates says of men who have made their own fortunes that “they are very bad company, for they can talk about nothing but the praises of wealth.” A lot of the people who succeed most brilliantly in a capitalist economy are not, to put it euphemistically, all that nice. In this market, sociopathy is a valuable skill set.

Most people do not feel they require more than, say, one billion dollars to be comfortable or secure, despite ridiculous movie ticket prices. They just want a reasonably nice life, and to be able to provide for their families, and they don’t mind working for it. But they also yearn, even more, to give themselves away, to be part of something bigger than themselves. I’m not suggesting that an economic or political system should provide us with a raison d’etre—most state-sponsored destinies have turned out poorly, and eventually they all seem to involve picking out somebody to kill. The authors of the Declaration of Independence were careful to cite “the pursuit of happiness,” rather than its guarantee, as one of the inalienable rights of man. I admire the reasonableness and modesty of this claim; democracy was only ever supposed to provide a fair arena in which to find your own way to fulfillment. But capitalism makes the false promise of that fulfillment, offering itself and its products as the solution to every human problem, quashing all other alternatives. After 9/11 Americans Red and Blue were starved to do something—donate food, give blood, make sacrifices, lay down our lives. Our President told us to go shopping. This was his answer to “blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “the last full measure of devotion.” We wanted to be a nation; he treated us like a market. Capitalism turns engaged citizens into dull-eyed consumers, ultimately leaving us spiritually impoverished, lonely, and obese.

I’ve been going to Occupy Wall Street for at least a few hours every day for the last week. I like being there, despite my intense loathing for drum circles and the kinds of people who believe that they are a powerful instrument of politico/spiritual change. In all political theater there is inevitably an element of performance, silly vain posturing and narcissism. But it feels exhilarating to be part of what’s happening down there, even if no one knows yet exactly what it is. Being there is addictive. While a lot of Americans are sitting at home in reclining vibrating heated chairs with flavored fizzy water, cookie dough ice cream, hot wasabi peas and extremely complicated remotes, watching coverage of the protests on satellite and wondering what it is these people even think they want, exactly, those protesters are sleeping outside on the granite slabs of Zuccotti Park in increasingly raw wet nasty New York October nights, eating veggie burgers and bean sprouts and using fast-food bathrooms, getting maced and handcuffed and made fun of, and they are feeling fully alive and passionately involved in the world, part of something that matters, all of them in it together. They’re cold, exhausted, and really uncomfortable, thinking harder about the biggest, most complex questions of our time than most college students ever do, trying to run an ad hoc society and a global political movement at the same time. For how they must feel, happy is too paltry a word.





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